The chairman’s draft of the House Armed Services Committee’ fiscal year 2024 defense authorization bill threatens to shutter the Office of Cost Estimate and Program Evaluation (CAPE) over disagreements with the Defense Department’s limits on amphibious ship procurement.

The bill mark specifically would disestablish CAPE and authorize the Secretary of Defense to determine where to devolve CAPE’s developmental testing responsibilities.

CAPE was established in its current form in 2009 to provide independent analytics advice to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense on defense programs, weapons systems and the cost-effectiveness of defense systems. The office is known for its annual program review of major defense acquisition programs as well as other studies as director by DoD leadership.

The office’s website says as an independent adviser to the secretary, “CAPE leads the necessary but often unpopular task of fitting the defense program to the budgetary limits set for the Department by the President and Congress. Consistent with its advisory role, the office has no direct decision authority or line responsibility and has no vested interest in any sector of the defense budget.”

Artist rendering of the first Flight II San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, LPD-30. (Image: HII)
Artist rendering of the first Flight II San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, LPD-30. (Image: HII)

A senior Republican committee aide told reporters on Monday that members of the committee “have found CAPE to both slow down the acquisition process and keep adding money to programs or requirements to programs that Congress has already authorized and funded at certain levels. So I think there’s just a frustration among members that CAPE has gone further than its remit.”

The provision may be meant more as a threat than a serious attempt to kill the office because the aide added that “if CAPE is going to survive they need to understand what our expectations are of that office and you know, Congress makes a decision, they don’t get to come in and rewrite the legislation or the statute that we’ve already authorized.”

The aide underscored disagreement on amphibious ship issues as a “shining example” of committee members wanting to push back CAPE.

“Just as an example, Congress set a floor for 31 amphibs for the Navy and CAPE is studying whether or not that’s the right number. And, you know, Congress made that determination, and that is the requirement now for the Marines. But CAPE is going in and telling members: I don’t know if that’s the right one, and you know, we may not let them do that. But statutorily, we have put in 31 amphibs. So, I think members are very confused as why CAPE thinks they can come back and determine…they’re not going to listen to Congress,” the aide said.

In March, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday confirmed the Office of the Secretary of Defense made a decision to pause San Antonio-class Flight II LPD procurement in favor of another study on whether LPDs should be continued or if there is a way to procure a cheaper variant (Defense Daily, March 15).

At the same event, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said he hopes the pause and study would be finished by June or September and then the Navy can plan to move forward on potentially a new LPD variant.

Jay Stefany, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, previously told the congressional defense committees the Defense Secretary-directed study is focused on cost issues rather than the earlier requirements studies that led to LPD Flight II being approved to succeed Flight I and replace the older dock landing ships (LSDs).

However, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger has repeatedly said he disagrees the LPD Flight II is increasing in cost when factoring inflation and ultimately put the next ship in the class at the top of his unfunded priorities list to signal the Navy is not planning to procure more LPDs, pending the study. (Defense Daily, March 29).

Marine Corps officials have also said they do not favor retiring any of the aging Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry-class LSDs unless they are being replaced with LPDs (Defense Daily, Feb. 22).

“We have a strong feeling that we heard from both the Navy and the Marines over the last two years and last year’s bill we set a floor on amphibs. And now CAPE is trying to figure out if the Marine Corps is going to do that or not. And, statutorily, we have required them to do it. So that is one example of a big frustration our members have,” the HASC aide added.

The aide said they are not sure who else would perform CAPE’s job within DoD, but said other budget personnel could probably do it.

“I don’t know who would do CAPE’s job. I’m sure they could find plenty of budget people in the department to tell us, you know, what a program that the Navy asks is going to cost and what their requirements are,” the aide said.